In gold lamé spandex, with glittered nipples, Dionysus is carried by wine-stained, toga-wearing maidens into a karaoke bar. He reaches down his seemingly skin-tight pants and miraculously removes a wine bottle from his nether-regions – a promising start to writer-director Jesse Freedman’s Euripides-inspired play, Karaoke Bacchae, now playing at the Ice Factory Festival at New Ohio Theatre. But cluttered storytelling prevents this show from finding true sparkle. The premise of a karaoke-fueled evening of mythical revels and revelations is appealing but even Dionysus might agree that some editing of the excess here is in order.
Too many stylistic trappings mask Freedman’s narrative mission rather than elucidate it. This 70-minute play mixes overlapping dialogue from found texts and Euripides with karaoke singing and music tracks. Precise sound design may have pulled off this complicated feat but in this festival production very few of the lines, recited or sung, are fully audible or intelligible. Complicating matters further are dim, fuzzy projections showing movie clips, karaoke lyrics, and scrolling lines of text being spoken. The cacophony of sounds and images becomes a perplexing muddle rather than creative layers that build on each other. Freedman’s direction did not elevate any particular production aspect over another so the audience just experiences a tidal wave of theatrical information.
In addition, a constantly mutating story framework means everything feels more disorienting than even a drunken bacchanalia should. Early in the play, unsuspecting women in the karaoke bar (Sarah Matusek, Sheree Grate) are converted from their normal lives to join the “Meneads” (Mehdya Fassi Fihri, Youn Jung Kim) who worship Dionysus. Later there’s an entire sequence where the Meneads quartet acts like sorority girls and recites parts of the infamous “deranged sorority girl letter.” If this choice is a play on the “Greeks”, well lol, but not, actually. The changeover is too abrupt and the purpose of the Meneads is barely established before we shift gears in this new direction. Then the construct evolves again and the women seem to be portraying a wasted, bachelorette party with a vomiting bride-to-be in tow (though their drunken mumblings near the end were some of the most specific and funny lines in the show).
Similarly we play guess the gambit with the character of Cadmus who is played as a blotto karaoke singer in the bar (Don Castro). Sometimes he spouts parts from Euripides and in other instances he’s commenting on Euripides’ Bacchae (“Its [sic] not a great play,” he notes), but most often he seems like a sloshed guy just having a breakdown.
Floating between the worlds of the gods and humans, and from Euripides to found text could be successful but it requires a confident production to guide the audience through. The audience need not know exactly what is happening at all times, but it does require assurance that someone else behind-the-scenes has a firm handle on the proceedings.
Here, it’s that creative authority that is missing. The theatrical ideas are written in broad strokes but there is not enough to unify the overall vision. Because the text is largely lost in the noise of the sound design we do not get perspective through words. But even if one assumes the sound and text barrage are meant to be intentionally opaque and Freedman is more interested in physical theater then the dance or movement must express where we are, or who these characters are, or what we are experiencing.
But the movement only conveys a glimmer of what it ought. Freedman smartly casts James Tigger! Ferguson, a self-proclaimed “stripperformance artist/actor/dancer,” to play Dionysus. Ferguson understands how to use his expressive body as a canvas to communicate his character and the story. With wild abandon, he hurls himself drunkenly through space calling upon us in his translation of Baudelaire to “Get drunk on Liquor, Drunk on Art, Drunk on Love…whatever. But Be Drunk!” Though he is fully committed, he’s only one part of this larger ensemble. Youn Jung Kim as Menead 1 was also a standout with zinging comedic timing and the sharp-tongued tone of a young Harriet Harris. Her focus never wavered. But generally the tentative direction for the Meneads and the rest of the cast left the audience more puzzled than enlightened.